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August 30, 2021

"A History of Early Drug Sentences in California: Racism, Rightism, Repeat"

The title of this post is the title of this notable new article authored by Sarah Brady Siff now available via SSRN.  Here is its abstract:

For the past 100 years, harsh drug sentences have had extraordinary support from the public.  Historically enthusiasm for drug prohibition often coincides with affinities for summary justice and authoritarian social control.  Escalations of drug sentences in California from 1881 to 1961 followed a pattern of collective myth making and value signaling that insisted opiates, cocaine, and cannabis were extremely dangerous, led to other crime, and prevalently were used and sold by immigrants and other despised groups.  Demands for severe punishment seemed to peak twice, in the 1920s and 1950s, in response to exaggerated threats such as “dope peddlers” targeting children and profitable “dope rings” controlled by subversive foreigners.  Amplified by a self-seeking, robust news media and a multitude of fraternal, civic, and religious organizations, the frightful construction of illicit drugs seemed to demand an uncompromising response. Increasing terms of incarceration seemed direct, simple, and quantifiable.

But white voters always understood that drug laws targeted immigrants and communities of color, and law enforcers used extreme penalties as leverage to pursue corrupt and racist prerogatives unrelated to reducing drug use.  Drug penalties in California were developed over many decades with almost extreme levels of participation by anti-drug activists and law enforcers.  Appearing somehow scientific, the resulting arrays of penalties implied that the cruelest sentences were reserved for the truly blameworthy, when in fact they were reserved for the marginalized.  Moreover, several legal conventions born of these penalty structures — mandatory minimums, the distinction between user and seller, punishment of addiction itself, and presumptions arising from drug quantities — still exacerbate the oppressive nature of drug statutes.  As California’s drug sentences increased and complexified over the first half of the 20th century, a destructive drug law enforcement regime sanctioned by white voters was unleashed on marginalized communities in Los Angeles.

August 30, 2021 at 06:45 PM | Permalink

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